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How the West continues to be Won

Just like the hard-bitten anti-heroes they depict, Wild West movies seems to never die, despite the odds being stacked against them at times. But what is it about the genre that has made it so enduring? Of course there are the classic themes of good versus evil, the action and adventure, and the talents of some of Hollywood’s most iconic leading men and greatest directors.

One element that cannot be overlooked, however, is the versatility and adaptability of the genre, and the fact that the way it has evolved can be said to mirror developments in American society throughout the twentieth century and beyond.

Up until the 1950s or thereabouts, it seems that the world of the cowboy was morally quite straightforward. The hero, a bit like America itself, would often bring savage enemies to heel and law and order to previously wayward settlements. This approach is characterised by the films of John Wayne, James Stewart and others.

The 1960s began to see a shift away from this approach, with not only a more morally dubious mood prevailing, but also an increase in violence. This was the era of the Vietnam War, where the USA’s role as global moral arbiter and policeman was being called into question.

The response of the Western genre to this changing moral universe is perhaps best exemplified by Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, which became the most controversial film of the year upon its release in 1969. As well as the high levels of bloody violence, which gave rise to the term “splatter Western”, it was clear that there were no true heroes anymore, with corruption and betrayal all-pervading.

1992’s Unforgiven, cited by some as the finest work of its star and director Clint Eastwood, takes things a stage further by seeming to dismantle the very myth of the Western itself. The film tackles subjects such as the difficulty even for grizzled veterans of taking another man’s life; something that earlier Westerns tended to gloss over.

Even today, the Western genre continues to attract punters to the box office and reinvent itself in innovative ways. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, for instance, which has been characterized as a highly stylized tribute to the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and ‘70s, was the director’s highest grossing theatrical release, despite attracting criticism for its violence.

It’s not just on the cinema screen that the Western continues to hold sway, however. With its gun-toting excitement and ethos of every man for himself, the genre translates extremely well to the world of gaming. Titles such as Red Dead Redemption have proven enduringly popular on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles, while online slot games such as Dead or Alive allow players to immerse themselves in the enduringly popular world of the Wild West.

One thing’s for sure; whatever form it takes, the Western is likely to go on winning for some time to come.

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